Radical Christianity #3: Dr Samuel Angus, the arch-heretic of St Andrews College

Words by Wilson Huang

During 1915 to 1943 at St Andrews College within the University of Sydney there was a peculiar Presbyterian by the name of Samuel Angus. He was the Professor of Exegetical Theology of the New Testament and Historical Theology at the Presbyterian Theological Hall in the college. While he had had a strict Calvinistic upbringing, his own theology was much more radical, leading conservatives within the Presbyterian Church of Australia to accuse him of heresy (though he did not ever receive a formal legal charge). In this article, I will look at the theology that made the man.

If you have been following this series, you may remember that I mentioned some might call Angus a Unitarian – or heretic. While it was the conservatives who called him a heretic and not withstanding that he also helped to form the 'Heretics' private discussion club with liberal Protestant theologians in 1916, to understand Angus, it is important to know what makes him Unitarian. Angus was impressed by ‘higher criticism’, and it is on this lens that Angus based his theology on. Angus looked deeply and critically in the Bible and rejected many parts of it. To him, intellectual integrity was necessary, and every doctrine needed to be based on reason or experience. The Bible was not to be understood as verbally inspired, and according to him, much of the Bible – for example miracles and also the resurrection – were added to make Jesus look better.

The Trinity, in particular, was irrelevant and unfathomable to Angus. In Truth and Tradition (1934) he said, “God cannot to-day be apprehended or made real even to earnest men in those, now unintelligible abstract categories.” Furthermore, the virgin birth, orthodox notions of atonement and the sinlessness of Jesus was untenable for him. Jesus was not considered to be God, yet he was still divine. To Angus, Jesus’s divinity came from his humanity, and he believed in the inherent dignity of all people (much like the Quakers), and together with the Student Christian Movement at the University of Sydney he defended the historicity of Jesus in June 1931 against an attack by some in the Freethought Society, who believed religion and science were incompatible.

To Angus, it was about the religion of Jesus, not the religion about Jesus, and he thought the goal of a Christian should be to mould their life after him. In Jesus in the Lives of Men (1993), Angus says this about Jesus: “He is accredited by his long train of conquests over the loyalties of men, and chiefly by the immediate, intimate and inevitable appeal made by him to everything that is best and God-like in each of us.”

To find more about Angus, have a look at this address from the Sydney Unitarian Church. Tune in next time, for my last regular article in this series on Death of God theology.

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